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That's what I'm talkin' about!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Here's a good example of critical writing I admire:

"Almost all of [the works in Columbia's modern literature course circa 1950] have been involved with me for a long time -- I invert the natural order not out of lack of modesty but taking the cue of W. H. Auden's remark that a real book reads us. I have been read by Eliot's poems and by Ulysses and by Remembrance of Things Past and by The Castle for a good many years now, since early youth. Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that our relationship has been very intimate. No literature has ever been so shockingly personal as that of our time -- it asks every qestion that is forbidden in polite society. It asks us if we are content with our marriages, with our family lives, with our professional lives, with our friends. It is all very well for me to describe my course in the College catalogue as 'paying particular attention to the role of the writer as a critic of culture' -- this is sheer evasion: the questions asked by our literature are not about our culture but about ourselves. It asks us if we are content with ourselves, if we are saved or damned. . ."

American literary critic Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), "On the Teaching of Modern Literature" [originally published in 1961], reprinted in Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning (Viking, 1965) [I added the bold emphasis]


On Community and Writing

Monday, April 26, 2010

Maybe obviously, part of what I’m trying to explore and to understand via the experiment of this blog is just what it is I do, what I want to do, and what I can do in the area of reading, thinking, and writing. Those who have known me over the past decade or so know well that I’ve struggled to align what I do, want to do and can do with what seems to be valued, recognized and rewarded in my profession. In other words, I have experienced something of a misalignment between what I do for a living and what I’d most like to be doing.

Some qualifiers: I do know that I’m fortunate to be making a living at all. Much of the world’s population struggles just to get enough to eat, to shelter and to clothe themselves. I also know that even among those who are able to make a living, the misalignment I just mentioned might not be all that uncommon. Indeed, for many people who make a living, their way of making a living may have nothing at all to do with what they most love to do. Some of those might pursue their love, their vocation, in their free time, using their day job to subsidize their passion. Others might, sadly, have just resigned themselves to a life lacking the cultivation and exercise of their vocation. So even within the set of those lucky enough to make a living, I know and appreciate that I am part of a lucky subset whose day job at least has something to do with what they love to do. I have a good job, with a great deal of flexibility in my schedule, summers off, and the opportunity to get paid to spend a fair amount of time playing in at least the general area of what I love: reading, writing, and thinking. So what’s my problem? Where’s the struggle? After all, I have tenure at the University of Michigan. I get to teach pretty much whatever I feel like teaching and, while my salary might go up more slowly and I might never be promoted to Full Professor because of it, nobody is breathing down my neck to publish.

I think it comes down to community. Now, community is a word that, in general, really irritates me. My experience with it in the academy is that it gets thrown around quite carelessly either in a self-congratulatory manner by people who believe a community gets made just by declaring it so, or in a hand-wringing gesture of lamentation by people who believe that community is a thing and that if they only had more of that thing (a thing, by the way, that someone else is supposed to provide them) then all their problems would magically vanish. Either way, it often winds up sounding sort of exclusive, formulaic and rigid, and somehow about perpetuating itself. Moreover, I’m a bit shy and somewhat introverted and so talk of community tends to make me nervous, my knotted stomach preparing in advance to shrink awkwardly in a corner trying to avoid everyone at the academic equivalent of a middle-school mixer.

But I recently had an experience for which I (and my fiancée Claire) could come up with no better word than community. And that experience has shed a certain light for me on my struggles over the past decade or so. I’m not sure I can (or want to) define community. But maybe if I can describe the experience, I’ll be able at least to extract from that description some of the qualities of what I think of as community.

Claire’s youngest sister, Louisa, came through St. Louis last week, on tour with her band, The Shondes. Along with Louisa, we hosted two other members of the band, Eli and Temim. They arrived on a Saturday afternoon, played an energetic set at a local club (to an extremely sparse crowd – a detail that may yet have some bearing on what I am calling community), and then stayed with us until Friday morning. They’d originally planned just to be with us until Wednesday morning, hoping that they could arrange for a gig in Memphis before their next scheduled appearance in Fayetteville on Friday night, but they seemed happy enough to scrap those plans when Claire and I somewhat sheepishly told them that we didn’t want them to leave. So we had about six days with The Shondes as our guests in our comfortable but not over-large two-bedroom apartment (a detail that may also have some bearing on what I am calling community).

Here is some of what we did during that time: went to a late-night diner at midnight to eat grilled cheese, fries, and milkshakes; Claire and her sister stayed up ‘til five in the morning one night talking over childhood and adolescent memories; ate pizza and artichokes and drank beer to celebrate Eli’s birthday; ate delicious donuts from quirky quaint establishments that Temim – following a passion of hers – had tracked down; talked about the details of their first record contract and the experience of recording their second album; talked about my life, particularly about the difficulties of trying to sustain relationships with my children (ages 18 and 19) while living far from them, but also about my parents, my siblings, and my childhood; talked about the Enneagram and each of our personality types (1, 2, 4, 6, and 8) and how they play themselves out in our lives and relationships; ate an incredible banquet of middle-Eastern food, after first airing extensively our anxieties about ordering food, especially food to be shared with others – and then, stuffed though we were, got ice-cream from a famous local landmark, Ted Drewes; walked around our neighborhood with a basketball, found an incredible old cabinet with phonograph and built-in speakers, hauled said cabinet back to our front porch in their van; ate another tremendous meal; walked around in Forest Park, overwhelmed by the smell of jasmine and the fading sunlight, where, while Claire and Louisa wandered around getting to talk some more, Eli and Temim and I enjoyed a beer on the dock of the boathouse and talked about their lives living in Brooklyn; ate Chinese food; talked about what Claire and I wanted to do with our lives; watched ridiculous videos on Youtube of extreme slip-n-slide and then perused the astounding culinary monstrosities on thisiswhyyourefat.com; ate one last incredible meal at the Fitz’s soda bottling plant that left us all stuffed to the gills and engaged in a ridiculous but irrepressible game of punning of the name “Fitz” on Claire’s Facebook wall, even as we were all seated around our kitchen table with our computers.

Then, horribly, Friday morning came, they loaded their things into the van, took a few Fitz’s sodas with them for the road, hugged us, and as my eyes filled with tears, drove away, Claire and I standing arms around each other waving goodbye. Claire and I, of course, were sad to see them go, but we were also unsettled by the whole experience. We took a long walk together the day The Shondes left and tried to sort it out. The first thing we realized was that we had, almost continuously while we were with The Shondes, felt that we had gotten to be completely ourselves. It doesn’t mean we didn’t perform at times, but when we did perform it was exuberant self-expression, not a craven desire to conform to expectations. We were -- crowded into our apartment -- foolish and difficult and generous and loving and that foolishness and that difficulty, and that generosity and love, were all noted as inseparable parts of who we were and what was appreciated and loved about us. We were vulnerable and strong, individually, together as a couple, together as a group of five, together in whatever combinations of two or three of us might have arisen at a given time. We laughed and laughed, we also cried, we were silent at times, we struggled at times, we talked and talked and talked and then talked some more. We were fully alive. And we realized that we had gotten to be around others a way – fully, expressively ourselves -- that we usually only get to be with each other (or maybe with our therapists).

That seems to me to be the core of what community can deliver: a nurturing, dynamic, human environment that invites you out in all your foolishness and glory and encourages you to be who you, uniquely, are. But wait, there’s more: because in this particular community, sharing time and space with this group of late-20-something musicians, all of whom have day jobs and bills to pay and tribulations like the rest of us, but who had determinedly arranged their lives so as to put their creative vocation at the center of their lives, come what may (even a disappointingly sparse crowd), Claire and I were reminded that we too had creative vocations. We were reminded of this, and reminded that gaining access to these powers was much simpler and closer to hand than we might have thought – had we not more or less forgotten that we had them in the first place. We felt inspired to plug back into these powers as individuals, as a couple, and to orient ourselves and our plans for a life in a way that would nourish those vital, creative capacities. So community not only lets you be yourself, I think, but also inspires you to get in touch with your best self, the part that most energetically participates in the creative force of life.

Coming back to my struggles in the academy, I think that this experience of community is what -- despite the ease and indeed relative luxury of what I do for a living, despite the friendships I have made there, despite the rewards of teaching – has been, crucially, missing for me. And it has been missing most conspicuously and harmfully for me, I now think, in the realm of writing and of the aims and styles of writing in particular. The academy has a number of forms which perhaps strive for, certainly mimic, and maybe even for some actually deliver an experience of community: conferences, journals, lectures, reading and writing groups. The problem, as I see it, arises first because performance in these forms tends to be tied in some way or another to a competitive system of reward (publication, tenure, and promotion), second because these rewards are scarce in relation to the number of individuals seeking them, and third because the criteria for judging performance and so providing rewards are relatively narrow and self-reproducing. In other words, unless you are predisposed to ask not the same questions, but the same kinds of questions as those judging performance; unless you have the same idea of what constitutes a problem to work on; unless you are naturally inclined to obey the conventions of academic discourse (which include not only a style of writing, and a form of argument, but also predetermined sense of what an essay is (around 30 pp. double spaced), what a book is (around 250 pp. double-spaced), not to mention the necessary scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliographies) – unless all of that is in place, then you aren’t likely to feel, when you are at a conference or preparing a manuscript for submission -- all those wonderful things Claire and I felt around The Shondes.

And that’s my situation and has been for sometime. I may still be trying to figure out what I want to do and what I can do, but I’m fairly sure that the prevailing forms and conventions of literary studies in the contemporary academy aren’t the community for it, whatever it is. For one thing, I want to be read and understood by people who don’t have Ph.D.’s and the things I’d have to do with my writing in order for that to happen are exactly the things that would make my writing illegible to the purveyors of judgment and reward in the academy (I know this because I have both received and purveyed such judgment and reward for nearly two decades now).

I don’t expect the academy to deliver the kind of experience of community we had with The Shondes. That’s sort of the point. I’m realizing that the community I might help sustain and that might help sustain me isn’t there. It doesn’t mean I’m quitting my day job. But it does mean I’m trying to actively to look to other circles in which to offer my efforts at making community.

I think that the kind of writing I want to do used to be done by academics in this country. They used to publish not in specialized academic journals but in literary reviews, alongside poets and storytellers, and maybe occasionally also in even more popular magazines. I’m still thinking about all that changed – in the discipline, in the American university at large, in the publishing industry, and in literary culture more generally – so as to make this sort of writing (and the community of readers and writers that sustained it) disappear. But while I think about that, and while I figure out what I want to do and can do, I’m thinking that maybe this blogosphere – isn’t that what they call it? – might actually provide the next best thing. (I really don’t know much about blogging and so would welcome responses from anybody who knows more about it than I do).

I remember at some point in graduate school, stuck with my dissertation, asking one of my advisors about who my audience was supposed to be. He said, your audience is whoever is still around after you’ve been saying what you think for a while. Maybe I’m coming around to understanding that. Maybe your community is who is around and loving you when you are being fully yourself. And I think that maybe through this blog I can contribute through my being my self in writing to the coalescence of a community – however small -- of readers and writers who may sustain themselves and one another and in so doing breathe a little life into the dying embers of an alternative way of reading, thinking, and writing.


On a visit to the Public Library

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I just got back from the University City Public Library. I found it to be a more complex experience than what I’d expected, perhaps than what it might be for many people, for the other patrons sharing the space with me on this rainy, cool Sunday in April.

The other day, I was in the adjunct faculty office at Webster University during my office hours when I noticed a sign that the bookshelves were to be cleared. There around a dozen of us adjunct faculty members in English and Philosophy at Webster who share this office. I’ve met two of them, seen one other, and see one regularly since we have the same office hours. There are three desks separated by dividers, a phone, one computer, a couple of windows, a bathroom, and several large bookcases.

Books, the note informed me, that had not been moved to the shelves marked “keep” were going to be given away at the end of April. We should feel free to take things we are interested in before then. I perused the shelf of books still awaiting a final determination of their fate; the ones that had not yet been rescued (or condemned) to be kept. Lots of introductory textbooks on composition and different kinds of technical writing, a few random anthologies of literature, some surveys and histories of Western philosophy. Most of these are fat books. There squeezed in among these I noticed a slim orange sliver of sunset of a spine, maybe a quarter of an inch thick, with the title Passionate Attention: An Introduction to Literary Study.

It’s a book written by one Richard L. McGuire (Ph.D, Rice University, 1968), professor of English at MacMurray College in Illinois, and published by Norton in 1973. The upper right corner of the front cover bears in small print the original selling price: $1.75. The book is 83 pages long, including 2 ½ pages of notes. There is no bibliography and no index. I’m reminded of something Claire and I have noticed and remarked upon at times watching old Hollywood classics: that the opening and closing credits take all of about a minute and a half to go through and that this contrasts so sharply with the seemingly endless trail of credits that follow a contemporary Hollywood film. I very much doubt that Norton, or any other publisher, let alone a university press, would publish an 83 page book today. I might be wrong about whether they would or wouldn’t, but I’m certain that they don’t. Books written by literature professors today – I take the first one that springs to mind off our shelves here at home, a comparatively well-received volume – look more like this: 375 pp., a 5 page index, a 15 page list of Works Cited, 47 pages of notes.

This is not about one is good and the other is bad, not in some ostensibly objective sense of those words. But it is about the poignant longing that the little volume by the-it-turns-out-late Professor McGuire has stirred in me. It’s that longing that took me to the University City Public Library today, that longing that has finally overcome the paralysis and fear that was keeping me from starting this blog, and that longing that I want to try to describe and, perhaps even, promote.

I think that the 70 or so pages of scholarly back-matter in the contemporary academic work, perhaps like the long list of credits in a contemporary Hollywood film, indicate how complex and technically sophisticated such productions have become; how armed they are. I’m thinking of the Spanish word armado, which means not only armed as in bearing weapons, but also assembled, composed. It makes me think of an elaborate construction, designed for unassailability and, perhaps unwittingly, impenetrability. By contrast, Professor McGuire’s slim work struck me as a vulnerable, tender little thing, somehow at once ambitious in its scope and modest in its pretensions. Its 2 and a half pages of footnotes advance no argument, defend no position: they just let you know where to look if you want to find the book from which he has quoted here and there in the course of his little book.

I want to talk in more detail about the book and its argument in another blog entry. Here I only want to indicate that the book, according to the back cover (and I agree with the description): “reminds the reader of the value of his own humanity, experience, and judgment and demonstrates the value, too, of other ways in which human beings have read literature.” In so doing, “it points a sane path between the authoritarian ‘this is the only meaning the work can have’ and the solipsistic ‘it means anything any reader wants it to.” On the one hand, reminder a reader of the value of his own humanity, experience and judgment seems like rather a tall order; on the other hand nothing could be simpler.

Reading through this book and even just weighing it my hand and mind against so much contemporary scholarship, as I say, awakened in me a longing for a writing about literature and culture that could be so simple, so direct, so confident and ambitious and so humble, modest, and tolerant at the same time. The book says, in nearly every way possible including its physical dimensions, “Anybody who can read and feel and think can begin to say something about this vast, living body of human work called “literature. Here is what I have to say about it. I think it’s pretty good, but I’m well-aware that what I’m doing is participating in and trying to facilitate a conversation in which I am just one – and not necessarily the most brilliant, erudite, profound, or eloquent one -- of many, many participants.”

I’d like to write about literature in this way. I’d like for there to be more room in the contemporary academy for writing about literature in this way. I write here, in this blog, hoping that if I’m somewhat despairing about the contemporary academic study of literature, then perhaps there is still a space and a hunger, a longing, for this sort of conversation out there in the world.

And so I went to the University City Public Library today in search of some titles that might nourish and stimulate and satisfy this longing. I went in with a list of a two or three, and came home with ten books (having left about four or five more on the shelf in embarrassment at what I guess felt like some immoderate desire). There were so many interesting books on the shelves there, so many that I'd never heard of and didn't know existed. I felt overwhelmed by a desire to read and read, and then to read more, to feel, to learn, to understand, and to share in writing. All this was in the space of 30 minutes at the Public Library of a relatively small town. What enormous richness and wealth I encountered! What a rhizome of possibilities!

I am a student again, but newly. Same as always, but different. Freshly washed, eager, hungry, opening.

I may be writing about some of these books in this blog. I’m not sure. It depends on what I find when I read (or reread) them. But I know that part of what they represent for me already (even in their currently unread or unreread state) is an older form of literary criticism (most were written in the 1950s and 1960s), one long out of fashion even before I started graduate school in the late 1980s.

I already know that some of what I find there will seem to me to be parochial or elitist, and may be easily associable with philosophical or political views I oppose, but I’m not too worried about that. It’s not entirely that I’m driven by some sort of nostalgia for a past situation of literary criticism, though perhaps I am a little bit. It’s more that I want to rescue something that I think was important in these works and in that time and to see if it can withstand the vital concerns of the present.

I’m interested to explore and perhaps try to resuscitate from these works the simple direct love of reading and of communicating one’s experience of reading, and the firm conviction that this is a valuable and important human activity for its capacity to challenge and enrich our understanding of ourselves and our world and to enlarge the avenues of connection between ourselves and our time and place and other selves and their times and places. I’ll let you know what I find.


The Introduction to Reading to Live (my book ms. in progress)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

“This book begins with me reading a passage from Spinoza in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1996.” Clear and certain though it seems, that statement is more complex, mysterious and full of potential than you might think. Keeping that complexity, mystery and potential in mind while we read has everything to do with what I mean by “reading to live.” Let’s examine that simple statement of this book’s point of beginning.

The book you are reading begins here. It’s harder to say where the book I have written begins. In an obvious way, it also begins here, in the same place you’ve begun reading. But in a different sense, a sense that refers to the complex process by which books come to be, it began in another place and time—Ann Arbor, 1996, reading Spinoza. But even that place and time is somewhat arbitrary, selected from any number of possible points of origin I could have chosen. Among other things, the beginning I have chosen involves me reading words written over three hundred years before I read them. So should the beginning be set at the place and time that I read those words, or the place and time that they were written? And of course that author, whose words I was reading at that time, presumably wrote those words down not only as the beginning of writing something but as the end of a long process of reading and thinking.

So, from the beginning, with the beginning, reading and writing get entangled and entangle and confuse time and space, as well as the identities, the selves, of the readers and writers.

Here are some words. I didn’t write them, though I am copying them down now as I read them in a book:

After experience had taught me that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile, and I saw that all the things which were the cause or object of my fear had nothing good or bad in themselves, except insofar as [my] mind was moved by them, I resolved at last to try to find out whether there was anything which would be the true good, capable of communicating itself, and which alone would affect the mind, all others being rejected – whether there was something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity.

The author of these words, Baruch (or as he is known by the Latin version of his name “Benedict de”) Spinoza, was a young man when he wrote them. We don’t know exactly how young because we don’t know exactly when he wrote them. The most reliable experts consider that he wrote them between late 1656 and late 1659. That would make Spinoza, born in November, 1632, anywhere between 24 and 27 when he set these words down as part of his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, the first work in philosophy that he ever wrote and one that he would never finish.

If that dating is accurate, then Spinoza wrote these words in the wake of what I think anyone would consider a rough year and certainly one that would change dramatically the course of his life. For in July of 1656, Spinoza was subject to a cherem (the highest eccliastical censure for the Jewish community, entailing total exclusion) from the Jewish community in Amsterdam. Spinoza’s family had come to Amsterdam before his birth, fleeing persecution in Portugal. Settled in the tolerant community of Amsterdam, Spinoza’s father had made a good name for himself with an import-export business. By 1656, both his parents having passed away, Spinoza, though a gifted student, was running the family business.

Scholars still don’t know what exactly led to Spinoza’s ostracism. The text of the ban refers to “evil opinions and acts,” “abominable heresies,” and “monstruous deeds,” and also to repeated attempts to get Spinoza to “mend his wicked ways.” But the upshot was the most radical cherem ever issued by the Jewish community in Amsterdam, concluding that “no one should communicate with him, neither in writing, nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor come within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.” Spinoza is said to have replied, upon hearing of the cherem, “Very well; this does not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord, had I not been afraid of a scandal.”

Though he remained in Amsterdam for a few years more, eventually he moved to Rjinsburg, then Voorburg, and finally, in 1670, to The Hague. He lived humbly and alone off a modest allowance granted by friends and political allies and from the income he generated as one of the most highly reputed grinder of optical lenses in Europe. Throughout this period he continued to compose philosophical and political works – though the only work of his published in his lifetime, the Theologico-Political Treatise (1670), was published anonymously. The clandestine circulation of his writings drew occasional visitors and correspondents who wished to learn more about, or to challenge, Spinoza’s views. He died without fanfare in 1677, surrounded by a small group of close friends and supporters, probably from the cumulative effects of inhaling glass particles in the course of grinding lenses.

So this is my hero, the hero of Reading to Live. I imagine Spinoza, in his late 20s, sometime in the few years following his shunning, facing a life that looked very different from the one he might have imagined for himself, reading, thinking, reflecting and eventually setting down those words I quoted above. As his biographer, Steven Nadler paraphrases the passage, Spinoza realized that “one must suspend the pursuit of ordinary ‘goods,’ such as honor, wealth, and sensual pleasure” which “reveal themselves, upon reflection, to be fleeting and unstable” and pursue instead “the true good”: “the love of something eternal and immutable” that is “never a source of sadness or danger or suffering, but only of joy.” By all accounts, over the next two decades, Spinoza never wavered from this pursuit, despite poverty and persecution. What he left his friends, and us centuries later, were these words and the other books published after his death and, of course, the example of his own well-lived life.

I first read these words sometime late in 1996, in the midst of a serious personal and professional crisis. But in order to convey the force of their impact on me and the role they played in shaping the experiments and ideas that I’m trying to share in this book, I need first to back up several years, to tell you something about how I wound up there and then, in late 1996, lost in so many ways, reading the first words of Spinoza’s earliest philosophical writing.
I will begin with an autobiographical story, because the central premise of this book is that reading to live can help us in practical ways to live better lives. Demonstrating this requires more than an intellectual argument, however impassioned. It requires sharing with you a concrete account of how reading to live emerged from and responded to real situations in a particular life, in this case my own.

I hope that this allows you to see a real-life example of how reading to live can work prior to trying it out for yourself. But I’m beginning this way also to affirm the fact that reading to live erodes the compartmentalization or fragmentation of our lives and our selves. When we read to live we practice and cultivate our wholeness. Sharing this experience of wholeness (or health: the word derives from older words for wholeness) in my case demands that I write not only as an intellectual, not only as an academic, but as a struggling human being who has happened, for a period of time in his life, to read and think for a living.

As such, I have struggled both professionally and personally with a number of issues that arise in the texts I look at below (as in many other texts). But perhaps the most salient and recurrent among these issues revolve around the experience of vulnerability and intimacy. Vulnerability and intimacy are, in themselves, simply human experiences, not “issues.” However, they have become issues in my life because I simultaneously desire and fear these experiences. I wasn’t always aware of this tension between desire and fear, but since I have become aware of it, I have found it valuable to explore it and try to understand it. I’ve noted that the tension crops up under certain conditions, such as when I find myself unable to orient myself intellectually in a situation, when I find myself removed from the power of my own feelings, desires, or nature, or when I find myself feeling isolated, disconnected from others and the world around me. But these painful experiences of vulnerability and intimacy are not just themes in the books that I will read; nor are they merely issues in my life. Vulnerability and intimacy are, in my opinion, the very stuff of the reading experience.

Reading for me is an experience of not knowing, of struggling to experience and avow my feelings and my desires in relation to a text, of seeking connection and communion. In short, reading is for me practice for a life of vulnerability and intimacy. As I tell my story and share my readings, I want to show how these particular issues of mine have arisen in order to show also how reading and a particular way of approaching reading – what I call “reading to live” – have helped me with those issues.

Reading to live has offered me no permanent or definitive solution. It has just helped in a periodic, almost rhythmic way. That is to say, I live and I lose and I find my way at times for a time, and reading to live has played an integral part in that. But the fact that reading to live has not solved these issues but only raised my awareness of them, and enabled me to accept and cope with them with a bit more grace is no indictment of reading to live. Any practice – therapy, religious worship, exercise, music, or painting or gardening – would be, I believe, subject to the same limitation. The best I believe that any practice of wholeness can give us is a periodic, visceral reminder of our challenges, as well as of our capacities to meet them. (Continued)


Writing With Love

I want to write with love. With love for the world. With love for existence and for life, for the tender shoots of beauty and feeling that spring up everywhere in me and in the world, despite the crush of fear, delusion, and greed. Whatever I write about, I want that writing to be suffused with love. Maybe at its core, that is what the reading to live project has ever been.

Passionate attention, it’s a beautiful phrase for writing the experience of reading, or really, of engaging with anything in the world. I like it better than informed interest, which is perhaps something like the close cousin of passionate attention. Both speak to engagement with the world, and while “informed” suggests approaching that engagement with information, knowledge, perhaps even understanding, passionate suggests approaching it with strength of feeling, with one’s capacity for feeling flung fully open.

But maybe they don’t need to be thought of as mutually exclusive – though it does seem that in practice one often does seem to exclude the other. But why should they: why not passionate, informed attention? Why not an engagement that brings affect and understanding together to bear on the project of augmenting the scope of affect and understanding in relation to some particular thing in the world?

I would like to approach what I write about in that way and I want what I write to become, because of the creative integrity that I have brought to it, to become a further link in the chain; a belt for the further transmission of the strength and power of beauty and feeling in the world as I have encountered it, so that others may encounter it too, and may be moved, in turn, in ways spoken and unspoken, to enlarge the realm of beauty, feeling, and understanding in the world.

Deep down, I think I have a great deal of love within me. But I am afraid. In so many ways, I am afraid to share that love. Afraid of rejection, humiliation, embarrassment, and failure. It is as though over the years that great well of feeling has been beaten down, shrunken and cowering in a corner, half dead and ignored. I want in my daily life to bring that love back to life, to heal it, nourish it with care, grow it into an exuberant rhizomatic surface that touches everything and I want my writing to be the full on unbridled expression of that process.

What kinds of particular things do I want to write about in this way? Well, it could be a book, or part of a book, a phrase, a movie or scene in a movie, maybe a song or lyric, or piece of music performed, it could be an experience or an instant, an idea, a person or a character, or an encounter between people that one has observed, or in which one has participated. I wanted to be guided my affinities, like a dog chasing a scent through the woods. I want to be informed, but untroubled by and undefensive about questions of expertise or academic disciplines or areas of human endeavor.

So I would like to write about the experience of hearing and watching Claire play Bach on the piano, or the Shondes playing “the Start of Everything,” or Richard Hofstadter exploring his own soul in the wake of his wife’s death, or the love-hate relationship I have with the rigorous creativity of scientific thought because of the way my father, a scientist, raised me. I would like to write about the things that make me laugh out loud and the things that make me cry and the things that make me angry and the things that make me curious and I would like in what I write to understand how that has happened and, above all, to pass it on to my reader.


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